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Education Bookcast

Oct 4, 2021

I realised I missed something, and I kicked myself.

For a while I've been toying with the idea that learning occurs in two stages, which can be mapped between cognitive science and neuroscience:

  1. Exposure to new material -> neuronal connections
  2. Practice and repetition -> myelination

...with elaboration (e.g. relating one piece of information to another) being a practice that involves both stages.

This model appeals to me for several reasons. Firstly, it is simple, which is a relief in the complex world of teaching and learning. Secondly, it is grounded in the idea that learning is all about addition to long-term memory, which is now a deeply ingrained idea with me. Thirdly, it is in line with the way that most teachers would teach, which makes sense - you would think that teachers tend to do something more or less right after so many years of experience.

However, there is one anomaly that I couldn't place in this model: pre-testing. It turns out that when you are given a test on something before you start learning, even if you're completely ignorant of the topic, it boosts your learning compared to just starting off with study straight away. How could this make sense with the above? For a while I just brushed it aside, but now I realised how it would fit in, as "stage zero": humility, or realisation of ignorance.

As I understand it, this is a stage where you can overcome your cognitive biases which make you not want to expend effort to learn anything, by assuming that you already know this, or that there is nothing to learn. Immediate exposure to a test shatters this illusion, and makes you more able - even subconsciously - to pay attention to the lesson.

One of the great things about this way of thinking is that it makes room for some "progressive" ideas within the starkly "traditional" view of stages 1 and 2. While I still feel that progressive education is largely a bad idea and a failure, I don't want to become dogmatically married to another way of thinking, especially not one which is to some extent defined by its opposition to progressivism. The chance for at least some reconciliation through synthesis is something that I warmly welcome.

In the recording, I also discuss how this relates to ideas of mental warm-ups, desirable difficulty, and the differences between learning and performance.

Enjoy the episode.